Updated: Syria: What Is to be Done?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 30, 2013 - 03:49:00 PM

Weekend UPDATE:

Thanks to the efforts of Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others, President Obama has, much to the surprise of some Very Important People in D.C., agreed to submit the decision on what to do about Syria to the Congress for debate. Thanks, Barbara.

In the last few days my inbox has been filled with earnest exhortations from all the estimable organizations that have email addresses for me. Not one of them has expressed the sentiment that is widely available in the national press as a whole: that we should go get ‘em in Syria.

Barbara Lee, my excellent representative in Washington, had the clearest expression of what we should be thinking about: “We must learn the lessons of the past. Lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others.” Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that, unfortunately.

There’s a cliché about this so widely distributed that at a glance the Internet doesn’t even hazard a guess as to its provenance. Generals always fight the last war. 

For those of us who have been frequently yet fruitlessly right about all the wars we’ve seen our government pursue in the last 50 years, the response to Syria seems like a no-brainer. Some of us started in the early 1960s haranguing an otherwise-okay Democratic administration about what was going on in an obscure part of Southeast Asia, and we’ve had to do it again and again over time. 

The most egregious misstep was one those of us out here in the roots of the grass had pegged from Day One, the one that inexplicably fooled all the Very Important People. After all these years I still can’t understand how I could have been sure that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Judith Millers and the Joe Bidens missed the boat entirely. Not only that, my entire immediate family, ten strong including babes in arms, marched down Market Street with thousands of our closest personal friends in March 2003, and Washington just ignored us. 

It’s no wonder that ever since we’ve been inclined to say Never Again when the drums of war start rumbling in D.C. They say Yea, we say Nay—it’s automatic. 

Which is what makes the current situation so difficult. 

Here’s my erstwhile spiritual adviser, Jon Carroll, who very occasionally emerges from his cat-induced torpor to utter wise words, as he did this morning in the San Francisco Chronicle: 

“And here's the other problem for the Obama administration. As it revs up its campaign to convince everyone that the chemical weapons were definitely Assad's and it all really did happen, it's beginning to sound suspiciously like another administration that wanted to have a war in Iraq, and set about lying to get one.” 

It does indeed, but this time it may be difficultly different. 

Way back in 2003, we were sure, and we were right, that there were no WMDs in Iraq. Today, arguendo, let’s just assume that the videos and the oral reports and the testimony of the UN investigators are not lying to us, that the government of Syria is gassing babies. 

What’s hard is to decide that if the Syrian government really did kill thousands of innocent civilians, should the United States of America do anything about it? 

And it’s not just the chemical weapons, because they seem (in Aleppo most recently) to be doing appalling things with “conventional” WMDs too, not to mention equally deadly weapons of individual destruction, including instruments of torture. Dead is dead, regardless of the tools used. 

For those of us who are familiar with history, the obvious conundrum is whether we have before us is a holocaust situation. We can’t help wondering whether we would have supported taking action when it counted in the 1930s and 40s, as the government of Germany systematically set out to kill its own citizens. Then as now, simple isolationism is tempting, especially for Americans who are still geographically distant from most theaters of war. 

An awful lot of people were massacred in Uganda as the United States took no action. Should we stand by now as Syrians are being slaughtered? 

For the deep-down pacifist, it seems easy: war is never the answer. They might be right. But as soon as you concede that there have been, historically, situations where military action has prevented even worse outcomes, it’s harder to know what should be done right now. 

Yes, suppose we say that the government of Syria has used chemical weapons on civilian populations, so we should help the other side. 

But who exactly is “the other side”? As we’ve seen in Egypt, not all revolutionaries are democrats—we might just be aiding one form of tyranny to replace another, to be replaced down the line by still a third one, and innocent lives lost all around in the process. 

Or perhaps all we want to do is “teach them a lesson”. There are no obvious examples of how limited air strikes (“surgical”, we like to call them) have successfully taught anyone a lesson. It seems logical, but it doesn’t work. And god forbid we should get into another ground war! We can all agree on that. 

What’s most important at the moment is that thoughtful well-informed people, “people like us”, should resist the temptation to fight the last war as generals are prone to do. Just because George Bush II lied to us about Iraq, we shouldn’t assume that Barack Obama is lying to us now, or that his advisors are lying to him. 

The hard case, the one we have to tackle as best we can, is that they’re telling the whole truth, and yet there’s still no easy answer. The important principle to defend is that it’s not just their decision. 

Barbara Lee gets it, as she usually does. Here’s how she put the question: 

“This letter is calling for a specific action: debate. Congress has a vital role this in this process and constitutional power that must be respected…The American people are demanding this debate before we commit our military, our money, or our forces to Syria.” 

Let’s join her in calling for congressional debate, ideally without those distracting conclusionary claims that the government of Syria isn’t using nerve gas. In the last half-century Congress’s constitutional prerogative to declare war has been dangerously eroded—it’s time to revive it.